What is Kensington Palace?
Kensington Palace is a royal residence built in the late 17th century by King William III and is now the official London residence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Kensington Palace History
We don’t tend to associate air pollution with the pre-industrial period, but in 17th-century London even royalty couldn’t avoid the coal fumes which blackened their subjects’ lungs. In the 1680s, King William III was required to spend much of his time in Westminster, but the damp and noxious air around Whitehall Palace, at its heart, aggravated his asthma.
He decided, therefore, to build a new residence just outside the city where the air was cleaner, in the village of Kensington. In 1689, the Crown purchased the original building on this site, Nottingham House, a small Jacobean mansion which had stood here since the early 17th century. Over the next few years the modest residence underwent a rapid architectural transformation under the supervision of acclaimed English architect Sir Christopher Wren.
Kensington Palace was rather disparagingly described by one Victorian critic as a ‘plain brick building, of no particular style or period … presenting externally no single feature of architectural beauty’. But fashions change, and the palace is now praised for its smart brick exterior and elegant, clean lines which feel more timeless than the rather crowded façade of Buckingham Palace.
An enduring favourite among royals choosing residences, the palace has been extended by various monarchs over the centuries. William and Mary died here, as did Queen Anne and King George II. One of the most striking features is the King’s Staircase, which was decorated in the reign of George I by an artist called William Kent. It’s a vivid recreation of the king’s court, full of intriguing and unexpected characters. As if unable to resist, Kent also contributed a self-portrait on the ceiling. He holds an artist's palette, while his lover, the actor Elizabeth Butler, stands behind him holding a fan. (One wonders how she felt about her appearance.)
Queen Victoria was born and raised in Kensington Palace. She remembered spending a miserable childhood here – after her father died, her mother, who lacked in confidence, fell under the influence of the charismatic but power-hungry Sir John Conroy. He prevented the young princess from socialising with other children and she lived a secluded existence in just a few rooms of the palace. Conroy claimed to be protecting the future queen but he also implemented a strict system of rules (the so-called ‘Kensington System’) that some think was designed to make Victoria dependent on him.
When Victoria was 18 years old and still living at Kensington Palace, she was awoken one morning with the news that her uncle had died, and that she had become queen. She made her way to the Red Saloon to hold a meeting with her Privy Council. Victoria left Kensington Palace as soon as she could, rejecting Conroy and his oppressive system, but she kept the palace as a residence for her children. Perhaps, then, it was her own experience, rather than Wren’s elegant building, which she found unhappy.
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